‘If we approach clients from a view of learning, we will end up learning’

24 Jul,2018


A hundred and seventy-seven pages and a few more for introductions, contents, acknowledgements and suggested reading make ‘Sponge: Leadership Lessons I Learnt From My Clients’ a must, and uputdownable read. Though it actually it deserves more than a rapid read. For, other than the very readable anecdotes written in an easy, now trademark Ambi Parameswaran style, there are nuggets of wisdom that he has added on to each of the chapters. The extract that we carry will give you a better idea of the format of the book. Great read. Non-discounted cover price: Rs 350. This interview with MxMIndia was done a day before the formal launch of the book in Mumbai. Read on…


It’s an unusual title for a book title, but then so appropriate for what you are trying to say. Evidently they were etched deep in your memory for you to recall all of them for the book. Did you ever alter the course of your career or the way you work post any of the lessons you learnt?

The 25 stories I have narrated in ‘SPONGE – Leadership Lessons I Learnt From My Clients’ are stories that have stayed fresh in my mind. Some of the stories date back to 1980 and some are from the 2000s. They cover a gamut of clients I have had the privilege of dealing with. I don’t think any of these interactions made me make a career change but may be they did play a hidden role. For instance, my move from advertising to marketing, in 1982 was probably a result of the terrific brand managers I got to deal with as an account executive. Other than for that, I don’t think there was any major career ‘Pivot’ driven by a conversation.


Something/someone that you are happy you didn’t learn from? And something that you absorbed and decide you’ll never ever do the same?

I have had my share of tough clients and demanding clients. I have had clients who were rude and at times unreasonable. So I have realised that when I deal with my associates, professionals like film makers, photographers, designers, I will not be unreasonable and definitely not rude. As a client told me many years ago, ‘You can disagree, But don’t be disagreeable’. I hope I have been able to live up to that goal.


In your 40-year career, you’ve obviously met a host of clients. From pedigreed, well-educated captains to johnny-come-latelies. And in the course of your meetings, you would’ve also met a host of people you wouldn’t have learnt much from. So is there a certain kind of professional/owner you would learnt from more? Did you learn more when you became a CEO or even when you were a rookie?

I think advertising is a unique industry, at least it was. As a rookie AE I got to interact with business leaders. So learning as a beginner was indeed very vast. But as you rise up in your job, your level of interactions also go up. I got to meet Chief Ministers, Finance Secretaries and people of that ilk much later in my career. And I did learn from them. So as you go up the organisational hierarchy you can continue on your learning journey. Now as a consultant, brand coach, I meet a whole new set of clients. And there are lessons that I am continuing to learn.


Would you say that you were privileged to were able to ‘sponge’ these learnings better than others would have over the years? Did the fact that you are educated at IIT and IIM plus you are academically inclined help corporate and marketing leaders to open out to you or share their thoughts with you?

I don’t think my education had a big role in my learning or getting business leaders to open up to me more. Somewhere I think I did use the S.P.O.N.G.E Framework to absorb new ideas. The framework is so simple you don’t need an IIT / IIM Degree to use it. Often we don’t listen carefully enough, we don’t question and we don’t understand what is unsaid. All this leads to shallow learning. If we are keen on learning, chances are the party on the other side will open up even more.


How would you rate the current lot of captains (head of business or head of marketing) versus from say 15-20-30 years back? Is there is a shift in the method to the madness then and now? Is there much to learn from the current crop?

It is a pity that advertising and I suppose a lot of marketing services decisions are getting pushed down the food chain. Prof John Philip Jones wrote about this in HBR and he called Advertising as the ‘Cinderella of Business’. I think if business leaders, I mean CMOs and CEOs can find the time to engage with their agency partners, both creative, media and strategy, they will benefit a lot more. The whole business of second-guessing the boss could be destroying a lot of good ideas.That said, I think we do have some excellent CEOs and CMOs in Indian business. May be they are preoccupied with other things. That is a pity.


Any word of advice to young advertising professionals on how they can ‘sponge’ from great minds just as you did

Young people in advertising and media need to ‘reframe’ the way they look at clients. The relationship cannot be about transaction and making a quick sale. If we approach clients from a view of learning, we will end up learning.


Lastly, this is your ninth book at the bookstores. And along with an active consulting practice and the time you spent in academia, here’s a question that we’ve asked you in the past: how do you manage to do it? Also, what’s the next book going to be on?

Reading, writing and teaching are all various sides of a coin. If you do two you can do the third with not too much effort. I have the habit of writing something or the other every weekend. That habit has stayed with me for the last twenty years. Now that I don’t have intense client pressures, I am able to write a bit more and read a lot more. So it is simply a matter of discipline, I think. May be that is too simplistic. But I don’t have any complicated mantra for writing. Regarding the next book, it still some distance away.



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